01 June, 2016

Plain as Day - Plain Packaging Regulations In Force in the UK

Plain packaging laws are a controversial topic, and undoubtedly cause quite the wave of discussion between IP professionals, the tobacco industry and even laymen (especially smokers) who will be, one way or another, impacted by the introduction of the regime. Whether you believe stripping cigarette packaging of their signature garb is a good or a bad thing, the trend seems to push towards the introduction of plain packaging worldwide in a systematic fashion. This blog has discussed plain packaging in the Australian context on a few occasions (more on which here and here), but this writer has followed similar developments in Europe with great interest. In the last few weeks plain packaging has taken great leaps in the UK, and The Standardised Packaging of Tobacco Products Regulations 2015 came into force on the 20th of May 2016. This piece will endeavor to give you an overview of the legislation and its effects; however, undoubtedly there will be a few wrinkles in the years to come.

Section 3 deals with the packaging and color thereof of cigarettes, stipulating that all packaging has to be the color Pantone 448 C with a matt finish (already used in Australia), but the use of white is also permitted, more likely on the inside and/or to distinguish the health warnings put on the packaging. The section does permit the inclusion of other elements, set out in Schedule 1, such as the brand of the cigarettes, number of cigarettes in the pack, details of their producer and barcodes (following strict rules on style). This does include the striking health warnings present in packs today as well. Sections 4 and 5 set out rules on the material, shape and function of the cigarette box itself, and the cigarettes contained within. The former is given more allowances, with soft and hard materials being left as a choice, but also on the lid design and its shape. The latter are very much left as they mostly seem to be, with cigarettes only allowed to be a matt white color, but the filter end (or the end that is not intended to be lit) can be colored to resemble cork (as many these days seem to do). The cigarettes can also contain their brand, but under strict design rules. Schedule 2 builds on the above, adding specific rules regarding wrappers, surfaces and inserts in cigarette packs.

Sections 7, 8 and 9 prescribe very similar rules for hand rolling tobacco packaging, allowing only the same Pantone color for the outside and/or for the interior, including plain white. The packaging also allows the inclusion of health warnings or other symbols sanctioned by Schedule 3. The shape of the bag containing the rolling tobacco can also be a variety of shapes, including a cuboid or a cylindrical shape. Similarly to Schedule 2 above, Schedule 4 adds on other provisions regarding the tabs, seals and wrappers in the packaging of rolling tobacco.

Cigarette Lives Matter
Sections 10, 11 and 12 add additional restrictions on packaging for both types, including (through section 10) the denial of any markings that encourage smoking, display information on the chemical composition of the cigarettes and compares favorably a given tobacco product to another. This is in place clearly to further prevent express benefits to any given brand that may, for example, contain less nicotine (or other harmful chemicals) or cost less per cigarette, and to even the playing field for all brands. Sections 11 and 12 prescribe that no packaging can emit smells or noise that is not normally a part of the packaging or product itself, or that the packaging cannot change appearance post purchase.

All of the above changes are quite logical and clearly aim to create an even playing field for all cigarette products, but for many, the question of why these provisions were introduced still remains. The government described the Regulations as a means to "...discourag[e] people from starting to use tobacco products; encourag[e] people to give up using tobacco products; reduc[e] the appeal or attractiveness of tobacco products, the misleading elements of packaging and the potential for packaging to detract from the effectiveness of health warnings; and [to] hav[e] an effect on attitudes, beliefs, intentions and behaviours relating to the reduction in use of tobacco products". The objective is clearly one of policy regarding health, especially targeting more image vulnerable young people and the early days of tobacco use. This writer commends the government for its bold initiative, following its Australian cousins across the way.

The Regulations were challenged in the High Court by all of the major tobacco companies (British American Tobacco (UK) Ltd & Ors, R (On the Application Of) v Secretary Of State For Health), where the companies, as summarized by Mr. Justice Green: "...challenged the Regulations upon the basis of international trade mark and health law, EU law, the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, the European Convention of Human Rights, and the domestic common law. They attack not only the Regulations themselves but also the process by which Parliament came to adopt the legislation". The judge ultimately found that the Regulations were lawful in all respects, and the introduction of plain packaging is almost inevitable.

The looks of products can be hugely beneficial for the sale and mind-share of any goods, and thus the loss of these external attractive features is yet another blow to the tobacco industry, including since the banning of the advertisement of tobacco products in the latter part of the 20th century. This writer thinks the change is nothing but a good one, but the legal professional in him seems to dislike the idea of the removal of all IP in cigarette packaging. Nevertheless, his opinion stays merely a single opinion, and the attitudes of the world have changed and plain packaging will probably spread further after this change.

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